Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bimal Roy's Parineeta

Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953) is based on a 1914 novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (or Chatterji, as the film's titles have it), who also wrote Devdas. And there are some striking parallels between the two stories. (Of course, two years after Parineeta Roy also filmed a famous version of Devdas.)

Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), the son of a wealthy Brahmin family, discovers that he's fallen in love with Lalita (Meena Kumari), the young ward of the family in the neighboring house. Shekhar has known Lalita since she was eight years old and came to live with her uncle Gurucharan and his wife after the death of her parents. The two families live in connecting houses, and Lalita spends as much time in Shekhar's household as in her own. Shekhar has taken on the role of teasing elder brother to Lalita—we first see her doing lessons at Shekhar's desk. But Lalita has now grown into a beautiful young woman, and Shekhar's feelings have become more tender. (In the novel Lalita is 13 (!); Meena Kumari was 20 at the time of filming.)

Shekhar's grasping father Navin  (Badriprasad) has other plans for Shekhar, however. He wants to arrange his marriage with the daughter of Choudary, another wealthy Brahmin who has promised Navin a dowry of 10,000 rupees. Shekhar's mother Bhuvaneshwari (the striking Pratima Devi), though, defies Navin and insists that Shekhar must choose his own bride:

[Un]like our times, partners cannot be chosen on parents' choice

Shekhar makes his choice when Lalita's young cousin is staging a marriage for her dolls. Wedding garlands are made, and Lalita playfully garlands Shekhar. He then meaningfully places a garland on her to complete the ritual.

Why did you garland me? I'm not worthy of you.

Lalita tries to resist, but Shekhar confesses his love:

Today I realised that I cannot live without you.

From this moment on, Lalita considers herself married to Shekhar. Immediately afterwards, all the girls of the family sing "the auspicious song" for the marriage of the dolls, but Lalita hears every verse as though it is meant for her:

Lalita's uncle Gurucharan (Nazir Husein) is overdue on repaying a loan to Navin. Gurucharan needed the money to pay the ruinous dowry for the marriage of one of his daughters, and now can't even pay the interest on the loan. While Navin becomes more and more insistent in his demands for payment, secretly he's pleased: Gurucharan has put up his house as collateral, and once Navin can seize it he plans to evict his troublesome neighbors, raze their home and build a second house.

To the rescue comes Giren (Asit Baran), the kind, good-looking, wealthy and lower-caste uncle of Lalita's friend Charu. Giren too is smitten with Lalita, and when he learns of Guruchand's plight he gives him the money to repay Navin—without interest. Enraged by the thwarting of his plans and by rumors that Lalita will marry Giren, Navin erects a wall between the two houses. The wall seems to be mainly a symbolic gesture, as Lalita and her cousins still enter Shekhar's house whenever they want:

Lalita's cousin climbing into Shekhar's house

Shekhar also hears the rumors of Lalita's marriage, and is deeply hurt:

Your uncle has sold you and made money.

Gurucharand takes his family away so that they don't have to live in proximity to Navin; the haunting "Chali Radhe Rani" (music by Arun Kumar Mukharji, lyrics by Bharat Vyas) echoes the anguish of the two lovers:

Shekhar finally consents to the engagement with Choudary's daughter; when news reaches Lalita, she returns with her family and tries to speak to Shekhar, but he refuses to hear what she has to say:

Won't you listen to me?

Will Shekhar agree to a loveless marriage? Will Lalita finally accept the kind and generous Giren? Will the families be reconciled, or remain forever at odds?

Parineeta is beautifully observed and structured. Roy's depiction of the two households is humane and deeply sympathetic, and all of the principle actors give excellent performances. (I was especially delighted by Lalita's vivacious 9-year-old cousin, I believe played by Baby Sheela—someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)

The problem with Parineeta is Shekhar. Like Devdas, he's petulant, spoiled, a bit cowed by his domineering father, and so convinced of his own righteousness that he doesn't bother to listen to anyone else. Throughout the second half of the film I was hoping that Lalita would realize that she would be better off with the devoted and selfless Giren. But my own wishes for an alternative ending aside, Parineeta richly deserves its classic status.

One final note: the "Bollywood Platinum Collection" DVD of Parineeta is taken directly from a not very pristine VHS source. Be forewarned that, as you can see from some of the stills, the image quality is not very good, and at times you can see places where the tape was creased or damaged.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Haydn's operas

The operas of Joseph Haydn are far less well known today than those of his older contemporary Gluck and his younger contemporary Mozart. No Haydn opera has ever been performed on the main stages of New York's Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, or the San Francisco Opera, at least according to a recent search of their online archives. And the relative obscurity of his operas was true in the 18th century as well, even though by the 1790s Haydn was the most famous composer in the world.

Haydn wrote more than a dozen Italian operas, plus four Italian comedies (which, like his half-dozen German Singspiele, had spoken dialogue instead of recitative, and may have been intended for a marionette theater*). But they were not widely known because they were not generally presented in public theaters. Instead they were performed in the court theater at Esterháza, the rural Hungarian estate of the Esterházy dynasty, for a select audience of Haydn's aristocratic patrons and their guests. (After 1766 Haydn supervised all of the musical activities at the court, including more than a thousand performances of opera—many by other composers.)

But after the Esterháza musical establishment was disbanded in 1790 on the death of Haydn's principal patron Prince Nicolaus, Haydn's operas fell into a neglect from which they have yet to fully recover.

By a stroke of luck I recently came across several recordings of Haydn operas at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, and what follows is a brief survey of my impressions:

Antal Doráti and the Esterháza operas
Between 1975 and 1981 Hungarian-born conductor Antal Doráti recorded eight of the surviving Esterháza operas with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and a group of wonderful singers, among them Frederica von Stade, Arleen Augér, Ileana Cotrubas, Elly Ameling, Edith Mathis, Renato Bruson, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and Benjamin Luxon. It was an extraordinary undertaking, requiring a major commitment from conductor, performers, and the Philips record label. For most of the operas it must have been the first, and for many it remains the only, recording ever attempted.

Doráti's Esterháza-sized orchestra does not play on period instruments—the early music movement was just beginning to gather momentum in the 1970s—but then there are also many modern-instrument recordings of Mozart. The one place where these versions feel dated is in Doráti's approach to the recitative, which is so deliberate that it's almost Wagnerian. Most of Haydn's operas are comedies, and so the energy can sometimes flag between the arias. But otherwise these recordings remain highly enjoyable today:

L'Incontro Improvviso (The Unexpected Meeting, 1775): A woman and her female companion(s) are abducted by a sultan and held in his harem, while her betrothed and his servant frantically try to rescue them. While imprisoned, the woman defies the sultan in a brilliant showcase aria filled with coloratura runs and leaping intervals. If you're familiar with Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Rescue from the Harem), all this probably sounds pretty familiar. But Haydn's opera was written six years before Mozart's. (Both composers were probably inspired by Gluck's 1764 opera Le recontre imprévue. Haydn's opera was a new setting of an Italian adaptation of Le recontre's French libretto, and Mozart may have seen a 1780 Vienna revival of Gluck's opera).

Apart from its "Turkish"-style music, the opera is especially notable for "Mi sembra un sogno," a lovely soprano trio for the melancholy captives. The singers are Linda Zoghby (Princess Rezia), Margaret Marshall (Balkis) and Della Jones (Dardane):

Il Mondo della Luna (The World on the Moon, 1777): With the possible exception of L’Infedeltà Delusa (Infidelity Outwitted, 1773), Il Mondo della Luna is probably Haydn's best-known opera. It features an old fool, Buonafede, who lusts after his young maid Lisetta while trying to thwart the suitors of his two daughters Flaminia and Clarice. One of the suitors, Ecclitico, convinces Buonafede that by consuming a "magic elixir" he can visit the Moon (really Ecclitico's garden). The amazed Buonafede is tricked into approving the marriages of three Moon couples—in reality, of course, the three young women and their chosen lovers. There have been several recent productions, including a delightful-looking performance in New York's Hayden Planetarium by the Gotham Chamber Opera company, directed by Diane Paulus:

Albina Shagimuratova (Flaminia), Marco Nisticò (Buonafede) and Hanan Alattar (Clarice), in Gotham Chamber Opera's production of Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna at the Hayden Planetarium. Detail of image © Richard Termine 2012

La Fedeltà Premiata (Fidelity Rewarded, 1781): A disastrous fire destroyed the opera house at Esterháza in 1779, taking with it many of Haydn's performing scores. La Fedeltà Premiata was the first opera performed in the rebuilt and expanded opera theater, and it is suitably grand. The plot is reminiscent of Mozart's Idomeneo, written at almost exactly the same time: a kingdom is plagued by a sea monster, which can only be appeased by the yearly sacrifice of two faithful lovers until a hero will offer his life in their place. The evil priest Melibeo chooses to sacrifice his rival for the affections of the flighty Amarante, Count Perrucchetto, and Celia, a faithful shepherdess who is concealing her love for the noble hunter Fileno. Many romantic misunderstandings, a parody of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (performed at Esterháza five years previously), and the intervention of the goddess Diana ensue before the rightful couples are united.

Here is the duet "Ah, se tu vuoi ch'io viva," in which both Celia (Lucia Valentini Terrani) and Fileno (Tonny Landy) believe they are parting forever:

Period-instrument performances with Cecilia Bartoli
Cecilia Bartoli has championed the overlooked music of many composers, and a decade ago recorded two of Haydn's late opere serie with leading period-instrument orchestras:

Armida (1784): The one thing no performance of Armida can do without is a passionate Armida, the Saracen sorceress who seduces the Christian knight Rinaldo (Christoph Prégardien) into switching sides during the siege of Jerusalem. Bartoli's portrayal conveys all of Armida's wild swings of emotion, from tenderness to anguish to implacable rage. Recorded in concert with the Concentus Musicus Wien and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 2000, this version features a good supporting cast that includes Patricia Petibon as Zelmira, the sultan's daughter who falls in love with another Christian knight, Clotarco (Markus Schäfer). Harnoncourt provides plenty of drive for the infernal demons, raging storms and fierce battles depicted in Haydn's music. And Bartoli sings both thrillingly and beautifully, as in "Se pietade avete, oh Numi":

Armida was the last opera Haydn wrote for Esterháza, and it was one of the most frequently performed there. This was also the rare Haydn opera that received productions elsewhere, including Vienna, which may have led to the commission for Haydn's next (and final) opera,

L'Anima del Filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Eurydice, 1791): After Prince Nicolaus' death in 1790 Haydn was free to accept outside (extra-Esterháza?) commissions. The impresarios Johann Salomon and Sir John Gallini brought Haydn to London and asked him to write a new set of symphonies and an opera. But the producers couldn't manage to procure a license for the King's Theater, and so today we speak of Haydn's "London Symphonies" but not his "London Opera." The first staged performance of L'Anima didn't occur until 1951; it had Erich Kleiber conducting and, as Euridice, a rising star named Maria Callas.

Bartoli was an established star when she took on the double roles of Euridice and Genio (the Sibyl who guides Orfeo (Uwe Heilman) through the Underworld) in conductor Christopher Hogwood's 1997 recording. It's a spectacular opera with a prominent role for the chorus. Here is Bartoli as Genio in the showcase aria "Al tuo seno fortunato":

L'Anima ends with the eternal loss of Euridice, the death of Orfeo, and a violent storm that sweeps away the deadly Bacchantes who are responsible for Orfeo's death. Unlike the versions by Monteverdi and Gluck, there's no happy ending here; there is, though, a lot of splendid scene-painting music.

I've been delighted to discover Haydn the opera composer. Haydn's librettos are often criticized, but they were usually written or adapted from the leading librettists of the day, including Carlo Goldoni. And the music is wonderful. There are echoes of Gluck and pre-echoes of Mozart, and most of it is superlative. I can only hope enterprising opera companies will forego the umpteenth production of L'Elisir D'Amore or Die Lustige Witwe and give us a well-staged production of a Haydn opera instead.

A (very) brief Haydn opera bibliography
A search of Worldcat turns up no books in English devoted solely to Haydn's operas. It's a striking oversight that someone should remedy as soon as possible. What I've listed below are the sources I consulted in putting together this post.

All subsequent research on Haydn owes a debt to the pathbreaking Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon, who wrote a definitive five-volume critical biography of the composer (H. C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works. Indiana University Press, 1976-1980). Landon later collaborated with David Wyn Jones on a one-volume compression of that work that alternated biographical material taken from Landon's books on Haydn with chapters on his music written by Jones:
H. C. Robbins Landon and David Wyn Jones, Haydn: Life and Works. Indiana University Press, 1988.
Inspired by Robbins Landon, Nick Rossi wrote an essay on Haydn's operas for the very first issue of the scholarly journal Opera Quarterly:
Nick Rossi, "Joseph Haydn and Opera." Opera Quarterly, v. 1, issue 1, 1983. pp. 54-78.
Cambridge University Press has published a series of Companions on major composers. The volume on Haydn includes thematic essays on Haydn's sensibility, aesthetics and environment, as well as in-depth discussions of the different musical genres he essayed:
Caryl Clark, "Haydn in the theater: the operas." In Clark, Caryl (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Haydn. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Update 27 September 2012: For Cecilia Bartoli fans, her new recording of arias by Agostino Steffani, Mission, featuring duets with fellow E&I favorite Philippe Jaroussky, is currently available for listening—track by track or in its entirety—as one of the albums featured on NPR's First Listen.

Jaroussky was the star of the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival's production of Steffani's Niobe, Regina di Tebe; you can read my post about it here.


* I've since discovered (in the Rossi article) that all of Haydn's marionette operas were in German.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi

Tanuja in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi

Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (Spring always comes again, 1966) feels a bit like the swan song it is. The movie was the final production of Guru Dutt Films, and Dutt himself had planned to play the leading male role. But on the night of October 9 - 10, 1964, Dutt took (either accidentally or purposefully) a fatal overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.

Dharmendra stepped in to play Jitendra, a crusading newspaper reporter writing articles that expose unsafe and exploitative coal mining operations. His publisher is Amita (Mala Sinha), who inherited her father's newspaper and has tried to maintain its commitment to printing the truth—whomever it offends. But Amita comes under pressure from her board of directors (many of whom have mining interests) to quash Jitendra's inconvenient and embarrassing stories.

Matters are complicated when Amita falls in love with Jitendra, only to discover that he is in love with her younger sister Sunita (a fresh-faced Tanuja—Kajol's mom!), and she with him. In a classic plotline borrowed later by (among other films) Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002), each sister decides to sacrifice her love for her sibling's happiness...

Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi is gorgeously shot in black and white; the classic "Guru Dutt" look was achieved this time by director Shahid Lateef and cinematographer K.G. Prabhakar. The film also has lovely, wistful music by O.P. Nayyar that features the playback singers Asha Bohsle, Mohd. Raffi and Mahendra Kapoor. There are several memorable songs; perhaps the most haunting (visually and aurally) is Amita's lament after her unwelcome discovery that Jitendra does not return her love. "Woh haske mile" is sung exquisitely by Asha:

Unfortunately, the movie veers into madness and overwrought melodrama in its final scenes. Even though the screenplay was written by Dutt's longtime collaborator Abrar Alvi, I have to think that, had he lived, Dutt would have toned down these sequences somewhat. But despite the mis-steps at the end, and even discounting my weakness for movies that feature romantic self-sacrifice, Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi is very much worth seeing. After all, who can resist the combination of Tanuja and Asha in "Koi Kehde"? Certainly not Dharmendra:

Update 15 September 2012: For another perspective on Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, DustedOff has an excellent (and much more detailed) review.

If you're willing to put up with the annoying red and blue "Ultra" logo on every frame, you can watch Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi on YouTube. I viewed the Eros DVD, which looks great and has no intrusive logos.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Trapped in subjectivity: Michael Frayn

Subjectivity and (self-) deception are at the heart of Michael Frayn's fictions. His novels often place us in the position of a participant in the story, and frequently feature narrators whose view of the world and of themselves is slightly askew. That divergence between how they see themselves and how we come to view them is not only a source of comedy, it is also usually the narrator's tragedy.

In Headlong (Faber, 1999), the narrator is Martin, an academic who believes he's stumbled across a previously unknown painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the home of his country neighbor Tony Churt (perhaps a portmanteau of "churlish" and "curt"?). Our doubts about Martin's identification of the painting—he thinks he's found a missing work from Bruegel's series The Months—are multiplied by his increasingly erratic behavior. He decides to keep the boorish Churt in the dark, pays a bit too much attention to Churt's neglected and resentful wife Laura, and becomes financially enmeshed in the sale of another of Churt's paintings.

As Martin focuses on minute details in the painting for clues that the seemingly bucolic scenes depict the horrors of Spanish repression in Breugel's Netherlands, he's increasingly blind to the destructive effects of his obsession on his own family. Exactly who is using whom grows less and less certain, while the likelihood that all of these entanglements are going to lead to disaster for Martin becomes more and more so. As Frayn writes in Stage Directions: Writings on Theatre 1970-2008 (Faber, 2008), "Martin slowly discovers the terrible strength conferred by possession, and the terrible weakness implicit in coveting" (p. 52). The lesson is not a happy one.

Martin is an example of a familiar type in Frayn's work, the character whose well-ordered, rational existence collapses into utter chaos. In the film Clockwise (1988), for which Frayn wrote the screenplay, that character is Brian Stimpson (John Cleese), whose attempt to arrive on time at a headmasters' conference goes increasingly haywire. In Frayn's latest novel Skios (Faber, 2012), the victim of his own assumptions is Dr. Norman Wilfred, a proponent of "scientometrics," who travels to a Greek island to give a well-rehearsed speech at a foundation-sponsored dinner. When he arrives, though, he discovers that his luggage, his destination and his identity have been switched with those of someone else. Things go swiftly downhill—at times literally—from there.

Skios is breezily entertaining at times, but has the feeling of Frayn operating on auto-pilot. It begins with a major implausibility: would a highly efficient and well-prepared personal assistant so readily accept a much younger man claiming to be the middle-aged Wilfred? Frayn seems to lose interest in the proceedings at what should be the comically frenzied denouement, making a half-hearted metafictional gesture and allowing the action to trail off anticlimactically.

Now You Know (Viking, 1993), like Skios, tells a story not from the point of view of a single character, but from the points of view of several in turn. It's about the unforeseen consequences of good intentions: when a whistleblowing civil servant goes to work for the charismatic and hypocritical founder of a dysfunctional open government pressure group, she decides to bring the group's practice in line with its theory. Long-hidden secrets are dragged into the light—but perhaps there's a reason why some things are known but not openly acknowledged. Not for the first or last time in Frayn's work, naïveté can be dangerous.

As can too much knowledge. In The Trick of It (Viking, 1989), an epistolary novel whose correspondence is only seen from one side, Richard is an academic who teaches the work of contemporary novelist JL. (She comes across as something like a blend of Margaret Drabble and Angela Carter.) When the writer and the critic have an ill-advised one-night stand, Richard's intellectual and erotic obsessions form a self-amplifying feedback loop. The line between comic exaggeration, embellishment, and fantasy in his letters becomes less and less distinguishable as he plummets toward the inevitable crash-landing.

Frayn is known as a writer of intellectually engaging comedies, but he also has a less farcical side. Spies (Faber, 2002) is told from the point of view of Stephen, an elderly man revisiting the London neighborhood in which he was a boy during World War II. Stephen reminisces about his childhood friend Keith and their game of spying on the neighbors, concocting tales and gathering evidence. When Keith claims that his mother is a German spy, the two boys begin to follow her—only to discover that she makes mysterious visits to the waste ground beyond the railroad tracks. Secrets are uncovered and the truth, when it emerges, has tragic consequences for everyone involved.

In A Landing On the Sun (Viking, 1991) the narrator, a government functionary named Jessel, is trying to piece together clues to the apparent suicide fifteen years previously of another civil servant, Summerchild. As Jessel follows the trail deeper into the papers, transcripts and tapes of Summerchild's final involvement in a mysterious two-person commission, he finds himself identifying more and more with the Summerchild's desire to break out of the bureaucratic constraints, and begins to vicariously relive the sequence of events that led to his death.

Point of view is also central to Frayn's most famous plays, Copenhagen (1998) and Noises Off (1985). The latter follows an underfunded theatrical company as they tour about the provinces flogging an unfunny slapstick farce called Nothing On. We see the first act of Nothing On portrayed from three different perspectives (dress rehearsal, backstage and front of house) on three different occasions, and watch in amused horror as the cast's untidy love affairs, clandestine drinking and professional despair increasingly spill out onto the stage.

Copenhagen is based on a real-life incident that took place in September 1941 between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former student who had become head of nuclear research for the Nazi regime. A brief conversation between the two men shattered their friendship; why Heisenberg made the trip to occupied Denmark and what was said in that fateful conversation have been the subject of speculation ever since. In Copenhagen the participants offer their separate perspectives on their exchange and its meaning: was Heisenberg signalling to Bohr that he would not pursue the creation of a German atomic bomb? Was he trying to find out whether there was an Allied atomic weapons program? Or was he trying to secure Bohr's cooperation with what Heisenberg then viewed as the side that would inevitably win the war?

In an essay on Copenhagen in Stage Directions (originally published in The Guardian, 22 March 2002), Frayn writes,

One of the most striking comments on the play was made by Jochen Heisenberg, Werner Heisenberg's son, when I met him, to my considerable alarm, after the premiere of the play in New York. "Of course, your Heisenberg is nothing like my father," he told me. "I never saw my father express emotion about anything except music. But I understand that the characters in a play have to be rather more forthcoming than that."

This seems to me a chastening reminder of the difficulties of representing a real person in fiction, but a profoundly sensible indication of the purpose in attempting it, which is surely to make explicit the ideas and feelings that never quite get expressed in the confusing onrush of life, and to bring out the underlying structure of events. I take it that the 19th-century German playwright, Friedrich Hebbel, was making a similar point when he uttered his great dictum (one that every playwright ought to have in pokerwork over his desk): "In a good play everyone is right." I assume he means by this not that the audience is invited to approve of everyone's actions, but that everyone should be allowed the freedom and eloquence to make the most convincing case that he can for himself. Whether or not this is a universal rule of playwriting it must surely apply to this particular play, where a central argument is about our inability, in our observation of both the physical world and the mental, ever to escape from particular viewpoints. (p. 78)
This inability to escape from our own subjectivity has consequences both comic and tragic, and the exploration of those consequences has been a fundamental preoccupation of Frayn's work for the past three decades.